Friday, September 22, 2006

Goodbye Clover

Everyone else on the Catholic Herald is thinking about the dialogue between Christianity and Islam, but my heart is too full. Clover the guinea pig died last night. She was our last guinea pig.

I recall a Posy Simmonds’ cartoon strip about the death of a guinea pig called Fred. The children ask Daddy what will happen to Fred, and he tells them about decomposition and organic decay. The children ask Mummy, and she tells them that Fred will always live in their memories.

Finally the children ask Granny what will happen to Fred, and Granny tells them that Fred will go to “guinea pig heaven”. A wonderful picture shows Fred approaching the gates of Paradise, welcomed by St Peter and a smiling host of winged guinea pigs.

In the final frame of the cartoon strip, the children agree: “We like Granny’s idea best.”

I started keeping guinea pigs to help the children learn about caring and death, and ended up being more worried about them than anyone else. I know guinea pigs are not considered to be exciting animals but you see, Clover was an unusually brave, spirited and resourceful guinea pig.

She came to us five years ago as a refugee, because her first home was overcrowded. I hate keeping animals in solitary confinement, so we bought a companion for her, a very dull little guinea pig called Porridge.

One night Clover and Porridge were left out in their run on the grass by mistake. It was past midnight when I sat up in bed, remembering them. I rushed out barefoot: as I feared, the local urban fox had got there before me. Poor dim Porridge was gone.

But Clover was still there, and unharmed. The fox must have been planning to come back for her later.

For a guinea pig to survive a fox attack is quite unusual. Guinea pigs are not brave: they are famous for dying on the spot at the slightest provocation. But Clover was undaunted. She probably fought the fox off with her bare teeth.

A week later she revealed herself to be a girl with a past, producing two dear little babies from nowhere. The babies grew up and by the time we had the elder boy “neutralised” Clover had, uncomplainingly, given birth to four children. One died, two were given away and the favourite, Harris, stayed to keep her company.

Ever since Harris died last spring I agonised about finding a new companion for Clover – at first she seemed to go into a decline, losing half her hair. Guinea pigs are martyrs to skin problems, but was she grieving as well?

I had thought a guinea pig’s memory was not up to the complexities of grief, but now I am not so sure. As I agonised, Clover suddenly grew her hair back, regained her appetite and seemed to enjoy a merry widowhood until time took its toll.

For a Christian, pet-owning should be suffused with guilt, but not so much as to cause suffering. Keeping pets should not be about keeping them alive; it should be about providing the best, which means the most natural, life for them in the brief spell they have on earth.

Nobody who puts clothes on a dog, except in exceptionally cold weather, deserves to be called an animal lover; nobody who prolongs an animal’s life with medication that causes more discomfort than it relieves is genuinely an animal lover. And however adorable new kittens may be, nobody who allows an un-neutered tomcat to roam around can call themselves an animal lover.

Pets are a luxury which I fear we have no right to. Every time I put fresh Thames Water Authority H2O into Clover’s personal drinking fountain daily, the 6,000 children who die every day because they do not have clean drinking water would cross my mind. As I paid the bill for the mange treatment, I remembered the children dying of AIDS.

The guilt of knowing pets are a luxury should be enough to prevent us from spending money on pets which should be spent elsewhere (dog fashions, for example) and from making the animal suffer simply because we cannot face up to their death. But it should not prevent us from letting them live and die as they would wish to.

Goodbye Clover. With your two lovers, four children, your refugee and fox survival experiences, not forgetting your lawn-mowing hobby, you lived as full, passionate and useful a life as a rodent can hope for. You taught us much, and we shall miss you. And yes, we do like Granny’s idea best.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Remembering Look and Learn

Daily Mail, Saturday 16 September 2006

Some people remember the sixties for sexual liberty and fashion. For me,the 1960s meant returning home from school on Fridays to find that my mother had parked my Look and Learn magazine neatly on my bed, ready toread with a cup of tea and a jam sandwich.

For so many of my generation, it was a thick wodge of entertainment and gorgeously colourful Knowledge with a capital K. Call me a nerd, call me sad, call me an anorak or any of the names which my children are taught today to describe someone who wants to know stuff.

I don’t care. I loved my Look and Learn.Every week there was a new, eye-grabbing cover - always a painted illustration - promising some new insight into the world: a dramatichistorical battle, perhaps, or an impressive-sounding literary figure, or some exciting scientific discovery that was surely going to change theworld, like space travel.

Yes, some of the dense blocks of text were a bit dull. But the picture-spreads were always fantastic - informative, liberally captioned and lushly coloured.One week, a double-page spread showing how the Houses of Parliament work,another week, the inside of a fire engine.

There was lots of proper history, with pictures of kings thumping theirfists on tables - the emphasis on kings, and British kings too, would have lips curling among today's liberal education elite.We learned about citizens round the world; we followed the story of WorldWar I; we were awed by the achievements of the British Empire; we picked upa sense of pride in our country; we entered weekly competitions and wrote keen letters.

There were condensed versions of Dickens, cartoons strips of Shakespeareplays, and we were introduced to writers such as Jules Verne, NinaBawden, Willard Price and Gavin Maxwell.As the first editor David Stone put it: 'Look and Learn is not a comic, ora dusty old encyclopaedia pretending to be an entertaining weekly paper.'It is really like one of those fabulous caravans that used to set off tostrange and unknown places and return laden with all sorts of wonderful things. In our pages is all the excitement, the wonder, the tragedy and the heroism of the magnificent age we live in, and of the ages which make upthe traditions which shape all our lives.'

What mattered most was exciting our children about the world around them -however unpromising the subject matter. So, newsy, in-depth series about'great disasters of the world' might jostle alongside a long-running picture feature about the history of Britain’s major roads.

I mean, who would have the nerve to serve up 'The Bath Road Story' -literally the history of the A4 down the centuries - nowadays in a children’s magazine?

And if it all got a bit too much like hard work, well, there was the long-running 'Rise and Fall of the Trigan Empire', the sci-fi comic stripat the back.

Who could resist romantically-dressed guys whizzing about in spaceships,long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away? And when the first Star Wars film came out in 1978, a lot of us wondered if George Lucas, its creator, hadbeen a Look and Learn child on the sly.

What will today's children - born more than a decade after the last issue- make of what was one of the most successful publishing ventures of itsday?

'What, no celebrities?,' the kids will cry. 'No vital facts about eachmember of the Arctic Monkeys! No fashion! No quizzes about "are you ready for sex"! No commercial tie-ins with the latest Play Station 2 games! Dense paragraphs made of nothing but words! What’s going on here?

Today's magazines seem to be directed at girls while boys spend their timeplaying violent games on the intenet. Obsessed with celebrities and sex,magazines such as Mizz and Top of the Pops, offer advice to preteen girlson make up and how to appear older than they are

One issue of Mizz showed a rap artist called Usher displaying his midriff and underpants as he advised a ten year old on her relationship with her ex-boyfriend. The quizzes - like the one we show on the right fromTop of thePops magazine - are about whether a celebrity might fancy you or not.

Little wonder polls repeatedly show parental concern about the explicit nature of these magazines.It is ironic too that, in the week Look and Learn announced it was to rise again, 110 childhood experts wrote a round robin letter to a national newspaper protesting against the decline of 'real' childhood.

True, there are still some areas where the Look and Learn banner is heldaloft. Television's Blue Peter is still with us - and is if anything betterthan ever before. Blackadder veteran Tony Robinson continues to fight almost single-handedly on TV for the minds of inquisitive children, withTime Team in which he looks at history through archeological digs.

Its critics will point out that Look and Learn was not politically correct; its world view was naïve, it was biased towards boys. Perhaps itwas; but more importantly it sent out the message that finding out aboutthings was the right way to go through life.

Sarah Johnson is author of Daring to be Different: Being a Faith Family ina Secular World

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A Real Experience

Catholic Herald, 15 September 2006

One hundred and ten people with an interest in the welfare of children sent a letter to the Daily Telegraph this week complaining that children were being poisoned by junk food and computer games. They included popular children’s writers such as Michael Morpurgo, Philip Pullman and Jacqueline Wilson as well as psychologists, scientists and child care gurus.
Not one church or religious leader was included in the list. Perhaps Philip Pullman, who is a particularly militant atheist, would have refused to sign anything contaminated by the touch of someone who believed in God. More likely, the organisers of the letter simply never thought of asking any religious leaders.
Children need, the letter argued, “first-hand experience of the world they live in and regular interaction with the real-life significant adults in their lives”.
Someone needs to point out to the signatories of the letter that children who are taken to church regularly get all this.
In church, they get a completely different sensory experience from any provided by the market-driven entertainment industry. They meet people of all ages, including the elderly, with whom children otherwise have increasingly little contact. They meet people from different social classes and people who have travelled from a different part of town. State school kids meet private school kids and vice versa.
They also, if their parish is well-run, have access to a range of “real” activities, clubs, prayer groups, carol singing outings; not to mention links with the wonderful, wickedly under-supported Scout movement, which has a healthy cross-denominational presence.
At the same time children who are taken to church regularly get a taste of the side of human life that is not dictated by money, celebrity and sex. They become aware of how lucky they are and how much they can do to help those less fortunate. They become aware, of course, of the unseen and spiritual. They also get to sing a bit.
In other words, going to church is a “real” experience like no other. It may not quite have the bracing outdoor quality of a hike over the moors, but it is one of the most consistent, easily experienced, family-strengthening and completely free activities open to parents and children. If not, the most.
So how much encouragement is there to parents to take their children to church? Or to any other place of worship?
Well, let’s take a look at some new guidelines just out from the Department of Education on school admissions and in particular on admissions to faith schools. Ever since the War on Terror began, the word “faith school” has become a term of abuse. Labour party apparatchiks and hangers-on like to pretend when they use it that they are referring to small, privately funded fundamentalist Islamic schools.
But in fact they are using the general alarm about these alleged “schools for suicide bombers” to beat all faith schools, including state-funded, profoundly regulated C of E and Catholic schools set up under the terms of the 1944 Education Act. It’s a very convenient little trick: to use public alarm about terrorism as a cover under which you can exact your revenge on the schools which turned down your child.
The latest guidelines propose that when a school is over-subscribed (and let’s face it, most voluntary aided Catholic schools are), children who attend church regularly should not get preferential treatment. Instead, the old methods of measuring distance from the child’s home to the school should be favoured.
The most generally obnoxious aspect of the ruling is the way in which the Government is taking it upon itself to re-define the terms of what makes a person a practising Catholic. The most seriously damaging aspect, however, is that genuinely devout parents who want a strong Catholic element in their school are to be shoved aside by parents who just remembered last month that they were Catholics, and had the money to move close to the school. And moving within the area really does need money, when the school is a good one.
Like many a Labour Party educationalist before, it looks as though Tony Blair is pulling up the ladder behind him.
Meanwhile the little incentive of attending Mass regularly because of “that school application form” and that longed-for priest’s reference is greatly diluted. I know it’s a bad reason to attend Mass. But I suspect that it’s one which has saved many a soul, and brought many a once-cynical lapsed Catholic back into the church, to their own surprise and joy.
I hope this nasty, unfair little piece of bossiness is roundly ignored by all Catholic schools sufficiently over-subscribed to do so. I also hope that in the next General Election, someone on the opposition side might speak up for faith schools and how they are the bright lights of our education system…but that might be expecting a bit too much.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The story of Sarah and John

Home Front, Catholic Herald 8/9/06

Is it really wrong for Tony Blair to want to trace the children most likely to fail in society from the womb? And is it going to make any difference?

I woke up late the other morning to hear Hilary Armstrong, the latest minister responsible for “social exclusion”, on my radio, repeating the Prime Minister’s promise to target troubled kids before they are even born. Just before her studio interview we heard from the kind of people whom, it is generally agreed, the system has failed.

Sarah, 37, is a recovering alcoholic but hasn’t had a drink for three years. Her son John’s childhood was spent largely in “homes”, and now he is an articulate 20 year old who loves his mum.

By 17 John was a young offender and was put on a structured programme with a strict incentive system which taught him much. But he feels it’s all too late - he’s a convicted criminal with no skills, no job and a terrible sense of a lost, wasted childhood.

It’s not that these people have lacked intervention in their lives. The children’s homes kept John out of harm’s way, in their fashion. But they also took away Sarah’s responsibility for him. There was “a man from SureStart who came round a few times and then stopped coming”, said Sarah. The trouble is, intervention has been consistently inconsistent.

John himself is very clear about his problems. (1): A mum until recently permanently sozzled. (2): No dad. “I’d have liked to have had a dad, someone to slap me in line when I done wrong,” he said. The young offender programme was the first intervention which “gave him someone to look up to”.

And (3): Not enough discipline or stimulus in school. “They put the naughty boys in with the slow boys,” he explained, “and you had to sit for half an hour waiting for the slow ones to catch up, and by then we was throwing rubbers about.”

So what (the Minister was asked) would the Government do now that it should have done in the past?

In reply, Hilary Armstrong offered an unworkable solution to (1) and just ignored (2) and (3).

Here’s how she did it: From now on, she promised, a mum like Sarah would get a “more personalised intervention”. She would be identified by a midwife as at risk because she was a teenage mum. Health visitors would “keep close contact” with her, teaching her to bond with her baby and “giving her more confidence and self-esteem”.

The new “personalised” approach, it seems, will force a lot of help on a few people, instead of offering a little to a lot of people. “Personalising” sounds like a new way of saying “cutting back”, doesn’t it? And since midwife numbers have been falling, just how are they suddenly going to acquire the new, clairvoyant powers required by Ms Armstrong’s system?

What about schools? Why has the barbaric practice of shoving tough “bad lads” like John into the same classroom as the easily-bullied slow learners, been permitted? Why do the exams get easier to pass every year, while kids like John are bored out of their skulls? The minister had nothing to say on the subject, nor was she asked.

So here we have an interesting dialogue. John begs for discipline. The minister talks about midwives. John asks for demanding school work that would lead him into a job. The minister talks about his mother’s need for bonding lessons. John wants a dad. The minister talks about his mother’s need for self-esteem.

Now it could be that the minister’s proposed self-esteem lessons have some room for advice on chastity and continence …but the fact is every attempt so far to introduce sexual abstinence programmes has been mocked and dismissed.

Yet this is exactly the self-esteem advice which might have helped Sarah to get herself the reputation of being the kind of girl a bloke might like to take up the aisle, rather than round the back of the bike shed. She might then have met a decent chap and married him. Then there would have been someone there for her and John through all those years. Someone to hide the gin bottle. Someone to tell John to get in line.

John did not ask for more professionals or for more benefits. He has asked, quite clearly, for discipline, for school work that does not insult his intelligence, and for a dad who won’t put up with any nonsense.

I have a terrible feeling that he, and his like, will never be heard.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Unexpected grace

Catholic Herald, 1 September 2006

When an apparently haphazard collection of circumstances combine in one moment of grace, it is time to question the apparent haphazardness, and to open up to the grace.

This occurred to me one evening this week while sitting among an audience in a darkened Norfolk church – an audience, not a congregation, mind you, for this was Art, not worship. After a short eternity of expectant silence we heard men’s voices raised in song, harmonising richly in a Latin chant. The voices drew nearer and a line of cowled figures appeared at the church door and glided up to a platform set up in front of the choir.

We had come to see a production of one of Benjamin Britten’s “church parables”, Curlew River, by a young company, Mahogany Opera. The church which lent itself for the performance was a mere stone’s throw from a genuine “curlew river” – the flat and wistful salt marshes of North Norfolk, which I’ve loved all my life, which many fall in love with (and near to which, alas, few nowadays can afford to live).

The story of Curlew River is very simple: a company of monks acts out a tale about a woman driven mad with grief at the loss of her only child. She hears of his sorry fate at the hands of a strange and savage kidnapper. She discovers that he is revered in death; she is visited and blessed by her child’s spirit, and her wits are restored.

The music is very Britten – hard to learn, but rewarding to sing and affording more sublime moments than anyone ever quite expects. I went home and started trying to find out more about Curlew River. It is not very often performed, perhaps because it is supposed to be done as a Japanese Noh play, which means that performers are required to go in for a lot more mannered posturing and stiff flapping of hands than we feel comfortable with these days.

But it was performed at the Edinburgh Festival last year, and Opera Now said: “A Christian reworking of the Noh play Sumidagawa, it centres on emotional reactions to the ill treatment and murder of a child - acts that, in themselves, call into question the existence and nature of an omnipotent and benevolent deity. The opera posits the idea of divine grace as being necessary to make such arbitrary cruelty bearable to those who live in its aftermath, though the austere, tortured music also leaves us questioning whether grace in itself is ever adequate for such a task.”

Isn’t it odd how both the opera critic and I saw and heard what we wanted to see and hear? After the Mahogany Opera monks had filed, chanting, out into the dark summer night at the end of their performance, leaving a beautiful stillness behind them, I was forcibly struck by the complete lack of irony in the work. I have no doubt that a professional opera critic, probably an atheist and far more musically knowledgeable than I, might well be “questioning” the existence of God and the adequacy of grace in his own mind, but I could not see how he could justifiably shoe-horn his own questions into this work.

If the monks were instead a band of psychotherapists, and their sung prologue had promised something on the lines of, “this is a story about closure and acceptance” I think the Opera Now critic would have been much happier with the piece. It is perhaps painful for modern music buffs to acknowledge that their musical heroes have genuine Christian faith, or at the very least a genuine respect for the tenets of faith.

Meanwhile, I found myself falling into the same kind of trap. An obsession with corrupted youth (and small boys in particular) runs through all Britten's work and I found myself jumping at the temptation to read into this particular choice of tale the self-lacerating guilt of a would-be paedophile. I thought better of it, for it must be as wrong to pick up a known aspect of any great man’s life, such as his sexuality, and fling it like paint at every piece of work he produces, as it is for a critic of no faith to superimpose his own "questioning" onto a composer who took faith seriously.

What this evening gave me was a sense of gratitude (and not just to my parents who bought us the tickets) - and grace. Here we are in a church built by medieval people, where memorials to an English nineteenth century naval hero mingle with crosses, hearing music sung and played by healthy young people from various far flung corners of the world with aspects of Western and Eastern culture thrown together.

And all in the name of God’s grace.